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ASTRA NULLIUS

Mind candy … in space!

By SteveF, member

Jan 31, 2018: Astra Nullius is a series of episodic short stories about the crew of a tramp space freighter. The ship and crew are rather beat up and beat down, paralleling the collapse of this universe’s multi-system civilization, and they have to make their way as best they can through whatever shipping or other gig comes to hand. Preferably legal, as the skipper still tries to live up to the expectations of for the military ship’s captain she used to be, but needs must.

The stories are well written enough that I don’t regret the time spent reading them. This sounds like damning with faint praise, but it truly is not. I don’t know how many stories, including ever-more-pricey commercially published fiction or highly-regarded literature, which have ended with me whining “Why why why did I waste part of my life on that?” Astra Nullius easily rises above that bar.

The spelling, punctuation, word choice, and other basic mechanics are excellent; those don’t make a story good by themselves, but their absence is almost certain to make a story bad. There were a few typos, sometimes even more than one in a single story, but the quality is better than most commercially published fiction. (I edit part-time, so I’m primed to spot line-level errors even when not specifically looking for them. I didn’t notice very many.)

The character’s pasts are revealed bit-by-bit over several stories, with the revelations being drawn out in dribs and drabs by events and not info dumped in a spate of rampant autobiography. Some of the stories were clearly plotted mainly to reveal a bit of a crewmember’s past, but it never felt forced or contrived. Demetria Spinrad handled this very well. Better yet, there’s no indication that we have learned everything about anyone’s past, leaving plenty of room for more stories.

Astra Nullius has one aspect which is not a problem, exactly, but which I view as a shortcoming: the stories can be read in any order. (With the minor exception of stories which are split across two parts; these are all titled with Part 1 or Part 2.) This means that we know before a story starts that there will be no major events like deaths of major characters, permanent additions to the crew, or major change to their “scratching out a living” situation. This follows from an author’s early decision. It’s not a bad decision, but it does remove a lot of the tension from some stories – we can be pretty sure that Crewmember Bubba’s dangerous situation will be not result in his death. Some stories do have a few bits which follow from other stories, but they are not significant and don’t require any reading order.

The short, episodic stories do have one advantage: if you have a just few minutes for reading, such as when you should be getting some sleep, you can read a story and not feel the urge to go on to the next in order to resolve a cliffhanger.

Several of the earlier stories (where “earlier” means they appeared earlier in the index page, not that they occurred earlier in the timeline) have the feel of old-time science fiction, as if you’d come across a Golden Age author you hadn’t heard of. eg, the crew steps out onto a new planet, feeling secure that they aren’t in any danger because this planet has no large predators. Bacteria apparently are nothing to worry about. This is by no means a bad thing, as it fits with a “dive right in” mentality shown in several chapters and can make for a fun, rollicking story, but it feels odd set against more modern tropes. Again, not a bad thing, just a surprise.

Fitting in with the old feel, you won’t find any groundbreaking concepts here. The stories work well enough as short action (or whatever) pieces, but they don’t cut any new ground.

Something that could be fixed is that the beginnings of most of the stories could have a better grab to draw the reader in. I sometimes had trouble getting past the first few paragraphs. It was fine once I got into it; it was just the first bit which was a problem. This may partly have been because of the reset to status quo ante after each story; I knew going in that today’s adventure was not going to leave the crew in a materially better condition than they started.

Overall: Recommended if you are looking for bite-sized mind candy that doesn’t pretend to be anything more than entertainment.

2 of 2 members found this review helpful.
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